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I settled in Australia as a skilled migrant and know the difference between policy and reality

<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

An immigration program might not be the economic silver bullet the government expects if it isn’t tailored to what’s happening on the ground. I have the lived experience of settling in Australia as an international student and skilled migrant, so I know all too well the challenges for people in that world between policy and reality.

There are some assumptions that have been built into previous immigration policies that are just plain wrong.

The biggest barrier for migrants looking for work when arriving in Australia is in getting their expertise recognised and their experience acknowledged. And then there is the additional barrier of inherent bias from employers who often have the choice of employing a migrant with foreign credentials and education or a domestic professional who has a shared understanding of Australia’s education and training systems.

This difference between policy and reality is a wide gap for skilled migrants arriving in Australia looking for opportunities.

Many skilled migrants arrive in Australia to enhance their skills. They have ripped up their lives at home to move to another country for a better life. It’s absurd to argue that these migrants gather only in populous areas, placing a social burden on services. They go where the work is, and because of unintentional biases they go where other workers won’t for opportunities.

On a recent trip to Alice Springs we took with the multicultural adviser to the Northern Territory’s minister of multicultural affairs, it became clear that members of the South Sudanese community moved there to be engaged in work relevant to their training and expertise, despite their deep connections with their community members in Melbourne.

We need to ensure that we learn from former refugees-turned-citizens about what it means to overcome stigma and racism to engage in the Australian workforce

This is not an isolated case, with thousands of people on migrant visas filling roles in regional communities where there are opportunities. Hence, the discourse should not be about total immigration numbers, it should be about meaningful employment opportunities.

But if there is not the work available in regional areas for skilled migrants, then they do gravitate towards those communities where they have deep connections. This puts a burden on services in city centres.

It’s not just in the skilled immigration policy where we see a disjoint between immigration policy and the reality. It’s happened to unfortunate people on international student visas.

Recent research revealed by Anglicare and highlighted by Pro Bono Australia suggests that the number of underemployed across Australia is currently sitting at 1.6 million. The report has also established that it takes an average of five years to secure entry-level employment.

International students are given only two years to find work in their area of expertise after graduating from their institution in a regional area.

As a skilled migrant, it took me seven years to land my first ongoing position, despite having local work experience and a degree from a local university. This job only came around after years on casual contracts.

These casual contracts were difficult and highly stressful for me as a skilled immigrant because the ending of a contract could also mean the end of the life I was building in Australia.

Related: Labor candidate Sally Sitou fears ‘undertones of racism’ spreading in Australia after Twitter abuse

Employers in Australia prefer a flexible workforce, but the rigid visa rules meant there was opportunity to exploit vulnerable and desperate workers on these immigration visas.

As Australia enters a post-Covid phase where it is looking at immigration to boost population growth and revitalise the economy, it’s imperative that immigration policies reflect what is happening, and what is possible, in regional areas.

We need to explore ways of offering permanent resident pathways to international students currently residing in Australia. This will boost our locally trained skilled migrant numbers.

Additionally, we need to ensure that we learn from former refugees-turned-citizens about what it means to overcome stigma and racism to engage in the Australian workforce.

The post-Covid world offers opportunities to do things differently. Other developed nations, such as Canada, have announced a plan for a massive increase in immigration numbers in coming years. Australia’s government has signalled a boost to immigration, but details are still to be released.

Covid has created a changed world with different priorities. This offers Australia an opportunity to fundamentally change its immigration policy rather than rushing back to business as usual.

But change will require a breaking of assumed stereotypes about immigrant behaviour and a more grounded policy on ensuring that a dialogue takes places around meaningful work and migrant wellbeing in Australia.

• Dr Devaki Monani is a lecturer in leadership and social policy at Charles Darwin University